What makes a convenience store chain so popular that folks won’t drink anyone else’s coffee, not even at home?
What makes that company so special that retired manufacturing employees will go on to work at its stores?
What is it about a company that prompts a former executive vice president, 10 years after his retirement, to spend his own time singing its praises?
It must be magic.
At least that’s what Don Price says. After all, his business card says he’s Minister of the Magic.
“My job is to figure out what makes it happen and help make it happen more often,” Price says of consumers’ attachment to Wawa Inc.’s chain of c-stores and employees’ devotion to the Pennsylvania-based company that bottles its own milk, teas and drinks to keep its stores’ coolers stocked.
Shunning his official EVP title, Price is still ministering the magic a decade after his formal retirement at age 65. His ministry involves visiting every store in the network that stretches from Philadelphia’s back yard across the Keystone State and into New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Along the way, he co-authored a book, “Images of America: Wawa,” telling the history of the company that dates back more than 200 years.
“The secret of our success is our values,” Price says among the throngs at a Wawa store in Chadds Ford, Pa., a leaflet at the ready detailing the company ethos: Value people. Delight customers. Embrace change. Do the right thing. Do things right. Passion for winning.
“Sure, every company says these things, but we really mean it,” Price declares, in between chatting with customers and reminiscing with employees whose families have worked at Wawa for decades. “This really tells you why this place is alive while others are going by the wayside. Our people aren’t employees – they’re family.”
That familial attachment extends into the community as well. “Wawa is part of the culture here,” says Jim Lee, director of Wawa Beverage Co., the C-store chain’s processing arm. “I have a neighbor who will only drink Wawa coffee – he doesn’t even see fit to buy his own coffee maker!”
Devotion to the brand runs so deep, it has spawned Web sites and blogs maintained by fans of the stores, says Kevin Peter, dairy plant manager. “We’ve even sent our tea base to Iraq for soldiers who have to have our tea,” he says.
That devotion adds up. The privately held Wawa Inc. (all stores are company owned and operated) doesn’t disclose financials, but Dairy Foods estimated the company’s 2007 dairy and beverage sales at $87 million, putting the company 93rd on its annual Dairy 100 processor ranking last August. Wawa reports selling nearly 22.3 million gallons of fluid dairy products in 2008, plus 14.9 million gallons of non-dairy drinks like juices and teas.
Growth through stabilityThose numbers are bound to increase, not only due to demand through Wawa stores, but with the company’s new contract packaging venture. Lee did not share details of the arrangement due to confidentiality, but indicated that parlaying newfound plant capacity into co-packing will help churn up the overall stagnant world of fluid dairy.
“We’re doing better than the industry through our store sales channel. We’re actually growing on the wholesale side by seeking partners different from ones we’ve worked with in the past,” Lee says during a February interview at Wawa’s Corporate University, a management training center next to the plant and up the road apiece from the corporate offices. “The idea of co-packing was a great opportunity but also a challenge because we hadn’t done a lot of it in the past.”
The company’s experience in product development for its own stores should carry over well to co-packing, Lee says. “We have a captive audience through our stores, so we have the luxury of taking our time and doing it deliberately. When we do something new, we do our due diligence and make sure it’s right for the business overall, from the perspective of Wawa Inc.,” he says.
“To our customers, we represent a very stable business that’s been servicing the community for the past 100 years. In a market where plants are closing, we represent the security of a larger enterprise but are small enough to cater to specific needs. If we didn’t have the store business, we would have a tough time standing up to those larger enterprises. The stability means I have the opportunity to supply large quantities of finished goods at a very competitive price, and the great thing is we still have room to grow.”
The company is weathering the current economic storm by cutting as many behind-the-scenes expenses as possible and delaying store expansions. Customer service remains paramount, and management agrees that any cuts to store service and quality would be disastrous.
“For all the efficiencies we’ve gained, we have not sacrificed the customer experience. If anything, we’ve enhanced it,” Lee says. “It’s part of our corporate mission to simplify our customers’ lives as much as possible. Anything we change here [at the plant level], that has to be with that mandate in mind.”
If anything, the downturn in the economy has led folks to rely on Wawa even more, as they reassess their food budgets. “You have some dining out at Wawa stores instead [of restaurants],” Lee says. “For a lot of customers, Wawa is an extension of their home.”
Peter adds: “For some, Wawa is their comfort zone, so it’s something people keep in their budgets.”
Wawa is a member of the Dairy Solutions Group, an alliance of independent processors (originally known as Master Dairies) that shares ideas about tackling common challenges and maximizing purchasing power.
How does the beverage manufacturing company operate within Wawa’s overall corporate structure?
“Our wholesale business is definitely for-profit, and our stores are our core business,” Lee explains. “The benefit of being an internal supplier is we have total access to stores point-of-sale information, daily updates on sales information. Store managers have direct access to the people who make the product. We see shifts in demand quickly. The replenishment efficiencies are a huge benefit to us.”
As plant director, Peter has weekly meetings with the marketing department to discuss needs at stores throughout the system. “We are very much embedded into the organization,” he says.
Lee continues: “I know exactly where my consumers are. We can go to the stores and talk to them. I routinely go out to the stores and work with store associates. I can talk to customers: ‘We just started making this. How do you like it?’ We get direct feedback other companies might have to pay for.”
Family businessAs unique as Wawa is among dairy processors, it also shares their basic traits, like staying on trend with new products and meeting consumer demand. And like other fluid processors, Wawa has seen milk consumption fall, leading it to seek other lucrative products to share line time. One of those is liquid gold in this region: bottled tea.
“Pennsylvania is one of the top areas for consumption of ready-to-drink teas, so we have to keep up with growth in that area,” Peter says, acknowledging strong competition from other regional brands like Turkey Hill (which has its own affiliated C-store chain), Swiss Farms and Rosenbergers.
A point of differentiation for Wawa’s products, Peter says, is that they’re sweetened with liquid sucrose rather than high fructose corn syrup. That should be a key marketing point, with HFCS constantly under fire in the obesity wars. “We haven’t seen fit to promote it as much as being ‘rBST-free,’” Peter says, noting that some of Wawa’s drink bases contain a small amount of corn sweetener. “We’ve been rBST-free. A lot of our milk supply was already rBST free. The farmers we work with were pushing us to promote it.”
Wawa milk products have been labeled as coming from non-treated cows since early 2007.
“It’s a great company to be a part of. It’s a lot of fun,” Lee says. “We’re much bigger than we’ve been in the past, but it’s still very much a family business.”
Some families have worked for the company for several generations, as evidenced by historical photos on display at the corporate headquarters, as well as the personal recollections of line operators, route drivers and store associates who are carrying on the “family business.”
Meanwhile, the company moves beyond its stores for community outreach, conducting in-store fund-raising for select charities, donating product on the local and corporate level, sponsoring events like walks and blood drives, and supporting the volunteer activities of its associates. The Wawa Charities Fund is the company’s chief source for direct financial contributions to nonprofit groups within its marketing area.
So inside and outside its manufacturing operations and stores, Wawa aims to continue its trajectory of growth.
“Our new team is focused on what capacity we have today and matching it up to what others need – looking to folks who need partners who are stable and able to do the job,” Lee says, noting that Wawa stores will remain a priority while the company continues to seek co-packing opportunities on a case-by-case basis. “The stores are the foundation of Wawa’s success. You can be assured that we will continue to do everything that we can to continue to best support that business.”
HistoryThe roots of Wawa Inc. date back to 1803, when David Cooper Wood began manufacturing cast-iron water pipes and decorative lampposts in New Jersey. In the 1850s, the Wood family added cotton milling to its operations; the company was incorporated in 1865 by Richard Davis Wood.
George Wood started Wawa Dairy Farms in 1902, specializing in home delivery of certified milk products from a prize herd of Guernsey cows. Proximity to the railroad influenced Wood’s decision to locate his dairy in Delaware County, Pa., near Philadelphia. On the main route from Philadelphia to Baltimore, the dairy had ready access to the city as well as the South Jersey shore, where the company eventually opened several sales offices. Wood opened a milk depot across the street from a Pennsylvania Railroad station in Philadelphia in 1903, allowing milk to be bottled, shipped by train from Wawa and loaded onto wagons for city deliveries within 12 hours.
In 1929, the dairy opened a new plant at a cost of $250,000. State of the art for its time, the facility continues to serve the company after numerous renovations and additions. The company grew to offer buttermilk, creams, cottage cheese and butter.
The dairy undertook a series of mergers and acquisitions in the 1950s to consolidate routes and expand retail-home delivery business. The acquisition of Brookmead Dairy in 1950 gave Wawa eight new routes on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The largest acquisition came in 1958 with the purchase of Turner-Westcott Dairies.
Supermarkets began to erode the home-delivery business, and Wawa’s sales declined between 1959 and 1962. Recognizing the advantage of serving a few wholesale customers rather than numerous home-delivery routes, Wawa CEO Grahame Wood led the company into the convenience store business, “because company-owned and -operated stores are captive customers.”
The first Wawa Food Market opened in April 1964 as an outlet for the company’s dairy products, along with sliced deli meats and other fresh foods. Since then, the empire has grown to more than 570 round-the-clock stores in a five-state region, famous for its freshly made hoagies, hot foods, coffee and other beverages, along with surcharge-free ATMs and gasoline stations at many locations.
Richard D. Wood Jr., great-great-grandson of Richard Davis Wood, currently serves as chairman, while Howard Stoeckel is CEO of the privately held company, with corporate offices in Wawa, Pa., in the Wood family’s ancestral home known as Red Roof.
SOURCE: : Images of America: Wawa, Maria M. Thompson and Donald H. Price, 2004
And since you're wondering ...“Wawa” is a Lenni Lanape Indian word for the Canada goose that was found in the Delaware Valley.
The Wawa Family of ProductsThrough its chain of more than 570 convenience stores in five states, Wawa has come to be known to its loyal consumers for made-to-order hoagies, freshly brewed coffee, Sizzli breakfast sandwiches, bakery products and ready-to-eat salads, not to mention surcharge-free ATMs and gasoline, all available around the clock.
But the company was born as a dairy, so at the root of its product offerings are an extensive line of fluid milk products, along with juices, teas and drinks.
Milk products include skim, 1%, 2% and whole in 4-ounce paper, 8-ounce paper and plastic, and 16-ounce, quart, half-gallon and gallon plastic bottles. There’s also 1% chocolate and strawberry milks, half and half, and heavy cream.
Among the non-dairy beverage offerings are seven tea and five diet tea varieties. There’s also 100% orange juice, 100% pomegranate cherry, 10% lemonade, orange drink, fruit punch, tropical citrus punch and kiwi strawberry.